Direct Instruction: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

Direct Instruction: A teacher's guide for making sure everyone accesses the curriculum.

What is Direct Instruction?

Direct Instruction is a model to teach students that focuses on carefully planned and well-developed lessons created around clearly explained teaching tasks and small learning increments. Direct Instruction is based on the theory that clear instruction eliminates misinterpretations, which can greatly enhance and accelerate the learning process.

Direct Instruction (or DI) was begun by  Wesley Becker and Siegfried Engelmann in the 1960s, who mentioned in his principles of instruction that applying DI correctly can enhance student performance as well as certain behaviours. It is currently in use in many primary and secondary schools in the UK and other countries of the world. In this article, we will explore this concept further and offer you some ways to bring this to life with your lesson content using a new teaching framework. Unlike constructivist informed approaches, Siegfried Engelmann believed that letting students pursue their own lines of enquiry without the appropriate support would be deemed ineffective practice. Delivering interactive lessons is fine but students need absolute clarity in how they move through the lesson content. This alternative approach is based upon designing a well-crafted, well-taught lesson. The lesson material in this instructional approach is systematically taught in a way that reduces the chance of a student developing a misconception.


What is the philosophical underpinning of Direct Instruction?

The concept of Direct Instruction is based upon the following five key philosophical principles:

  • Every child can be taught;
  • Every child can gain academic achievement on basis of self-image.
  • Every teacher can be successful if provided with sufficient training and learning material.
  • Disadvantaged and low performing students can catch up to their higher-performing and experienced contributors and peers if they are taught using direct instruction.
  • Each part of instruction needs to be controlled to reduce the chance of students' misunderstanding the details being taught and to increase the reinforcement of instruction.

integrating the direct instruction concept
integrating the direct instruction concept


How does Direct Instruction work?

Direct instruction has four main features that ensure that the students learn quickly and more effectively than any other teaching strategy available:

  1. Instructions are provided according to the students' ability levels: At the start of each programme, students are assessed to check in which topics In education they have gained mastery and where do they need to improve. Then, the students with a similar stage for learning are grouped rather than those studying in the same grade level.
  2. The programmes are structured to ensure mastery of the content: The programmes are organised to introduce the skills gradually. This provides a chance of gaining student achievement and the children learn and apply the skills before learning a new set of skills. Concepts and skills and are taught in isolation and then combined with other skills in a more sophisticated and advanced manner.
  3. Teaching is modified according to each student’s pace of learning: A remarkable feature of DI is that learners are taught according to their respective speeds of learning. If any student needs more practice of any specific skill, instructors can provide additional teaching within the program until student satisfaction after the student gains mastery of the skill. Similarly, if a student has quickly gained mastery of basic skills, he/ she can be moved to another placement so that he/ she may not have to stick to the same 21st-century skills they already possess.
  4. Programs are reanalysed and revised prior to publication: Direct instruction programme elements are very unique because they are created and revised if needed. Before publishing, each DI programme is field-tested using real students. This indicates that the programme students are receiving must have already been proven to work.

Impact of direct instruction
Impact of direct instruction

Direct instruction of a well-taught lesson occurs when teachers use explicit instruction to teach any particular skill to the students. This category of teaching is teacher-directed, in which a teacher presents information while typically standing at the front of a classroom. In this teaching method, teachers adjust their teaching according to the task to improve students’ understanding of a topic and follow a strict lesson plan with little room for any change. Direct instruction does not always involve active learning or active learning activities such as case studies, workshops or discussions. Presenting a movie clip or video to the students can be considered a type of direct instruction (although the instructor is not actively teaching students, the presentation of material and content was chosen by the instructor).

It must be remembered that basic techniques of teaching such as direct instruction, scaffolding or differentiation, are seldom mutually exclusive. Hence, in a variety of classroom settings, direct instruction can be incorporated with any other instructional approach in a given lesson or course. For instance, teachers can apply direct instruction to prepare learners for any activity in which the pupils work on a group project with coaching and guidance from the instructors as needed (the group activity is not considered a type of direct instruction).

Show your class how to move their thinking forward with the Universal Thinking Framework
Show your class how to move their thinking forward with the Universal Thinking Framework


What are the benefits of using explicit Direct Instruction in education?

The independent practice of direct instruction does not only extend beyond demonstrating, presenting or lecturing but many are considered as foundational for effective teaching strategies. For example:

  • Creating learning objectives for projects, activities and lessons, and then ensuring that learners have understood the objectives.
  • Purposefully sequencing, and organising a series of assignments, projects and lessons, that allow students to gain stronger knowledge and achieve specific educational goals.
  • Reviewing instructions for an activity or project—such as a role play—so that learners understand what is expected from them.
  • Providing learners with clear descriptions, illustrations and explanations, of the academic skills and knowledge being taught.
  • Asking questions to ensure students' understanding of the teachings.
Direct instruction model


What do critics have to say about direct instruction?

In current times, the concept of scripted lessons with explicit direct instruction is seen as a negative practice among some teachers. As direct instruction is frequently associated with old lecture-style instruction in classrooms with many passive learners obediently sitting on chairs and writing notes, it appears to be pedantic, outdated, or inadequately fulfilling student learning needs by some teachers and education reformers.

But, most negative connotations for the direct instruction seem to result from either a misunderstanding of its techniques or a limited definition of this concept. For instance, every educator, essentially, use some degree of direct instruction in his/ her teaching such as, while preparing lessons and courses, at the time of demonstrating and presenting information, and when teaching clear directions and illustrations of topics. These are all necessary, and to some extent inevitable, teaching activities. The negative impact of direct instruction may arise when educators start to depend extraordinarily upon direct instruction, or when they fail to use alternative techniques that may bring better results in terms of improving student interest, comprehension and engagement.

In a 21st century classroom, many teachers do not consider a single 45-minute lecture sufficient for learning content, but the alternative techniques they may advocate - like project-based learning or self-directed learning - certainly involve some degree of direct instructions by educators.

Therefore, educators rarely use either the direct instruction method or some other type of instruction approach—in actual practice, diverse strategies are mostly a blend of explicit teaching strategies. Due to this, negative opinions of direct instruction mostly result from an over reliance on the approach, and due to viewing direct instruction as unimportant.


Final Thoughts

The application of Direct Instruction will bring an essential element in education: change. Educators will normally be required to teach differently than before and schools may need to apply a different organisation than they previously had. And, it is important that all concerned show hard work, commitment and dedication to students. The concept of Direct Instruction helps to internalise and adopt the belief that each student if properly taught, has the ability to learn. Whether you are designing special education programs or delivering mainstream provision, Siegfried Engelmann's philosophy has lasted the test of time and deserves consideration. This approach might have significant implications in helping your students engage with the curriculum content. From a philosophical perspective, this approach enables learners to build robust background knowledge which can be seen as a gateway to social mobility. If you are interested in improving the amounts of knowledge your students can process you might be interested in reading about the Universal Thinking Framework. If your school is interested in having a look at this approach, please let us know and we can organise a demonstration.